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House Environment Subcommittee Looks at Mid-level Ethanol

Wednesday, June 12, 2013   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Michael Geatz
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The House Science, Space, and Technology Subcommittee on Environment held a hearing on February 26 titled, "Mid-level Ethanol Blends: Consumer and Technical Research Needs.” The purpose of the hearing was to examine the scientific, technical, and consumer impacts of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s decision to allow the introduction of mid-level ethanol blends (E15) on engines and fuel supply infrastructure.

According to information supplied to Members of Congress by subcommittee staff, the national consumption of gasoline and gasoline products has grown from 96.5 billion gallon per year in 1974 to 134 billion gallons per year in 2011. As part of an effort to reduce the reliance on foreign sources of oil, the Federal government has supported numerous policies to increase efficiency of fuel use and supplant oil sources since the 1970s. One of these initiatives includes the production and use of bio fuels through various tax incentives. More recently, this support is evidenced in the establishment of the Renewable Fuel Standard (FRS) in the Energy Policy Act of 2005. The RFS mandates that transportation fuels contain renewable fuels, such as corn-based ethanol. The mandate required four billion gallons of renewable fuels be blended by 2006 and 7.5 billion by 2012.

Congress then expanded the RFS requirement in the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, which required a blending of 15.2 billion gallons of biofuels by 2012 and 36 billion gallons by 2022. The use of E10 was authorized by the EPA for use in 1978. However, E10 was not used on a widespread basis until the Clean Air Act of 1990 mandated the use of an oxygenate in fuel. By that time the cars engines being produced had the necessary technology to absorb this level of ethanol, however, many boat outboard motors and inboard engine and fuel systems did not. The boating industry has seen considerable safety and repair issues on older marine engines.

Blending fuel at concentrations greater than E10 in order to meet the increased production volumes required by the RFS presents a challenge to the industry. This challenge is referred to as the "blend wall,” or upper limit to the total amount of ethanol that can be blended into the national gasoline supply. In an effort to avoid the blend wall, on March 6, 2009, 54 ethanol manufacturers petitioned the EPA to allow E15.

The EPA issued a partial waiver for E15 on October 13, 2010, allowing the introduction of E15 for use in model year 2007 and newer cars and SUVs. On January 26, 2011, the EPA granted another partial waiver for use of E15 in model year 2001 and newer vehicles. The EPA did not grant a waiver for the use of E15 fuel in model years prior to 2001, non-road engines (boats), motorcycles, equipment, and heavy-duty gasoline engines.

In order to grant these waivers, the Clean Air Act requires the EPA to first determine that E15 would not cause or contribute to a failure of an emission control device or system. This determination by EPA was based on a single set of tests conducted by the Department of Energy in 2009-2010. The testing program only included eight models of vehicles made in 2001-2006 and 19 models representing 2007 and newer vehicles. No boats were tested.

In June, 2011, the EPA issued a mis-fueling rule intended to mitigate the potential for consumer confusion. The rule mandated a new label to be used on pumps at gas stations that sell E15, and it encourages but does not require measures to educate consumers about E15. Despite public concerns raised to the EPA, including comments by MRAA, the agency approved the recommendations submitted by the Renewable Fuels Association as sufficient to satisfy the partial waiver requirements on March 15, 2012.

Given the potential for E15 caused damage to vehicle engines, concerns have been raised and questions asked regarding warranty coverage for use of the fuel. The Automobile Association of America (AAA) issued a press release indicating its concern and called for the immediate stoppage in E15 blends until sufficient research has been completed to determine the effects E15 may have on engines. Additionally, eight automobile manufacturers have indicated that the use of E15 does not comply with the fuel requirements in their owner’s manual and may invalidate or void warranty coverage.

The issues of ethanol caused damage are magnified if the ethanol content of gasoline would be further increased to E20 or beyond. The hearing closed with the Subcommittee committed to the need for further research to determine the level of bio-fuel additives that are safe for engines and people.